I have two questions concerning words for colors, one specific and one general.
First, Beekes in Comparative Indo-European Linguistics: An Introduction (p. 181) reconstructs a PIE suffix –no- that forms adjectives. An example is * krs-nó- ‘black’: Skt. kṛṣṇá-, OCS črъnъ *(<čъrsn-) (so Russian черный). Several color terms in Latvian, such as sarkans ‘red’ and dzeltens ‘yellow’ look like they might also fall into this category. Can anyone confirm this?
Now the more general question. How diachronically stable are color terms?
On the one hand, there is an argument for stability. We can broadly distinguish core or basic vocabulary from cultural vocabulary. Introductory historical linguistics textbooks say that core vocabulary tends to be conserved because it is less susceptible to borrowing.* Most languages will include a certain number of color words in their core vocabulary. Simply because they are ‘basic’, we can assume that these color words are fairly conservative. The fact that children learn color words very early also suggests that transmission of these words across generations of speakers is likely to be relatively stable.
On the other hand, I can think of several paths by which color words might be replaced over time. Colors may be associated with certain nouns (like blue with the sky), which might come to be used in place of the color (like ‘salmon’ as a color). Or some factor of material culture, e.g. how dyes are produced, might influence the color word used. Examples here might include Chinese characters for colors with the grass, bamboo or silk radicals (藍, 紅), which seem to reflect a physical source like the indigo plant.**
I am aware of Berlin and Kay’s study of color systems, and that seems to be mainly synchronic. To what extent can we reconstruct color terms for PIE?
*cf. Terry Crowley, An Introduction to Historical Linguistics (2nd ed. 1992), p. 153: “Languages are more likely to copy words from other languages in the area of cultural vocabulary, rather than core vocabulary. Core vocabulary is basically vocabulary that we can expect to find in all human languages.” Five basic color words (red, green, yellow, black and white) were included on Swadesh’s 100-word list.
**There is an additional consideration: color words may have other meanings besides that of color, as in Chinese 青 qīng, which can mean ‘young’ in addition to green or blue. In extreme cases like Hanunoo, these additional semantic dimensions can accrue and throw into question the existence of a color system as such. See the discussion of universalist vs. relativist approaches to color terminology in Chapter 7 of William Foley’s Anthropological Linguistics: An Introduction (1997).